Matthew Rojansky explains that U.S. and Russian shared interests in the Near East are greater than many Americans suppose:
Russia’s criticism of U.S. policies in the Middle East may often come across as paternalistic finger-wagging, and in part it is exactly that. Russia sees itself as one of a handful of key global powers whose counsel should be heeded and respected. Now especially, Russians believe they speak for reason and moderation against an echo chamber of irrational exuberance about the Arab world’s “awakening” that risks drowning out common sense. But there will always be those for whom criticizing America is its own reward. There are many competing voices in Russia, as in the United States, and it would benefit both sides to value vital interests and concrete actions over mere words. Despite tough talk from Moscow and Washington over the changes sweeping through the Middle East, U.S. and Russian interests in the region are actually closely aligned.
It has been particularly unfortunate that U.S.-Russian ties have frayed over the last year on account of disagreements over Syria, when the U.S. has never had a stake in Syria’s conflict and greater involvement in it has never served any concrete American interest. As Rojansky says, Russia acts as a status quo power, and its foreign policy is typically reactive and defensive. It ought to be easier to avoid clashes with a status quo power if the U.S. were not so intent on pursuing such an activist policy abroad in so many regions. Unfortunately, whenever Russia attempts to act as a status quo power, those actions seem to be invariably misinterpreted in the West as proof of increasing Russian influence rather than the maintenance of influence that it already has.
But though Washington and Moscow differ on rhetoric and tactics, when it comes to core U.S. interests in the Middle East, such as managing the rise of political Islam, constraining Iran’s nuclear program and ensuring the welfare of the state of Israel, there is more convergence than disagreement between the former Cold War rivals.
Which is why it is so thoroughly misguided to interpret the Russian positions on Iran or Syria as evidence that Russia is acting simply to oppose the U.S. Especially on Syria, the Russian government could easily conclude that the U.S. has seemed to go out of its way to quarrel with Russia, and the U.S. has done this despite its obvious reluctance to entangle itself too much in the conflict there. Russia certainly isn’t our “number one geopolitical foe,” and the U.S. and Russia have enough interests in common that they should be able to continue a policy of greater cooperation as long as both governments understand how both can benefit from it.